Between the Lines

Everything old becomes new again.

Once considered tired and old-timey, stories on audio are again having their time in the sun. The seventy-year gap between the fall of the great radio serial and the resurgence in popularity makes sense, and it’s largely due to technology.

During that gap, audiobooks were considered too expensive and unwieldy—the static format of records or cassette tapes turned a slim paperback into a mountain of plastic. Quite understandably, very few books were recorded. Of those that were recorded, most were purchased by readers who needed audio for accessibility purposes—no one else could justify the cost.

But the technology was destined to catch up because, deep down, we wanted it to; people have always listened to stories, since well before we started writing them down and printing copies. Whether it was around the campfire, on the radio, or, now, on that sweet app on your phone, the proliferation of podcasts and other audio-based content reflects a very natural mode through which we interact with the ideas we’ve been conditioned to believe are meant for printed books.

This boom in audio content seems to build on itself every day, as more and more creators reveal just how far we can stretch the flexible nature of the form. Very much resembling the old episodes of The Shadow that your grandparents listened to on the wireless, serialized podcasts are showing listeners exactly how extra recorded content can be. Want to throw a song in there? Sweet. Want to have a whole dramatic cast? Even better! Ideas are begetting other ideas; it has never been a better time to be a listener.

And, to our astonishment, “book” publishers are paying attention and responding accordingly.

The first sign of what was coming occurred when publishers started transitioning the audio publishing rights of a book from a sub-right to a primary right. When we first started in this business, audio was just thrown into contracts—but no one really wanted it, and it was rarely a sticking point in negotiations, because no one could get one made. Now, though? It’s almost impossible to separate rights to the print book, e-book, and audiobook. They’re all considered primary formats. That might sound abstract at first, but it matters: publishers now view the audio version of a book to be integral to the project, as synonymous to the essence of the book as the paperback is to the hardcover.

As a result, if an agent wants to keep audio rights away from publishers by selling only print and e-book rights, they have to hustle and sell those audio rights elsewhere before the book itself sells. Not an easy feat.

But that separation in format is something publishers themselves are trying out, in an attempt to take advantage of the same form flexibility that allows your favorite sprawling podcast to thrive. Some publishers have tried releasing an audiobook before the print version of the same story comes out—sometimes even in a fun serial format. They’re also trying out full casts, famous names (figuring, correctly, that the narrator might be as much of a draw as the writing itself), or adding interviews with the author to the end of the book.

There have also been exciting innovations on the selling side of audiobooks. Audible, the audiobook branch of Amazon, has, of course, taken the lead. For a fixed fee each month, users can download one audiobook, regardless of price, and get discounts on any others. Last year, Audible also introduced a romance subscription package, where users can get an unlimited amount of romance audiobooks (and access to killer search categories) for a flat fee, like a genre-specific Netflix. Libraries, too, have jumped on board, using either Overdrive or cloudLibrary to host their audiobooks, which can be checked out with the tap of a finger and delivered right to your phone.

The audiobook industry, which has been growing by double digits for the last five years, and at over two billion dollars in revenue a year, shows no signs of slowing down.

That could have a lot of very notable ramifications for the industry, and even the way we think about reading. You’ll definitely see the trend of audiobooks being published at the same time as their print or e-book counterparts continue. That simultaneous publication date could mean that the format starts receiving the same publicity hype typically associated with shiny new hardcovers; what if, instead of cover reveals meant to drive interest, we suddenly had “narrator” reveals, or pre-released audio excerpts of particularly exciting moments in the story? The switch to being a primary format could also mean the proliferation of audio-specific awards, and perhaps more artistic attention and acclaim given to people reading the books aloud.

As a separate format, expect publishers to experiment more with serialization, especially for projects for which they aren’t totally sure of market. It’s painful for a publisher to overprint copies; less so to create a recording no one listened to. And you know we’re always for experimentation from publishers—it means more voices, more types of books, and more readers drawn in. And with that will come even more new technologies. Could we finally get an industry answer to Audible?

It is always worth celebrating when publishers pay attention and find new ways to reach readers. And in the coming golden age of the audiobook, they’ve found a way that feels familiar to us, already ingrained in us, like something we’ve been waiting on for a very long time.

 

Laura Zats is a literary agent in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she specializes in children’s fiction, science fiction and fantasy, and romance. She is also the editorial manager for a Minneapolis-based partner publisher and frequent workshop teacher.

 

Erik Hane is a literary agent, freelance editor, and writer based in Minneapolis. Before moving to the Midwest, he served as an acquisitions editor at The Overlook Press and an assistant editor at Oxford University Press.

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